States Newsroom: A Novel Approach To State-Level News

There are forces in the US that like to selectively bring up “states rights” from time to time – with the impending decision stripping the federal protections for access to safe abortion, this is one of those times. But most of us don’t methodically monitor what happens in states that are not our own. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a single source where one could find reliable reporting on state-level politics and policies? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to the Founder and Publisher of the States Newsroom, Chris Fitzsimon. We discuss the business model for this nonprofit news outlet, the landscape of the online news industry, and why it’s more vital than ever to deliver readers truthful, well-presented local news. Then, we revisit part of last year’s discussion with Liz King, the Director of Education at the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, as she outlines the battle over civil rights in our nation’s public schools.

Narrator: This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Chris Fitzsimon: Increasingly these this decisions and these huge huge debate for our future are being held in in state capitals and people are still paying enough attention to the people who are making those decisions how they got there who they’re beholden to what their point of views are and the fact that L. a sad number of them are simply not telling the truth about key things that are happening in this country.

Narrator: There are forces in the US that like to selectively bring up “states rights” from time to time – with the impending decision stripping the federal protections for access to safe abortion, this is one of those times. But most of us don’t methodically monitor what happens in states that are not our own. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a single source where one could find reliable reporting on state-level politics and policies? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to the Founder and Publisher of The States Newsroom, Chris Fitzsimon. We discuss the business model for this nonprofit news outlet, the landscape of the online news industry, and why it’s more vital than ever to deliver readers truthful, well-presented local news. Then, we revisit part of last year’s discussion with Liz King, the Director of Education at the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, as she outlines the battle over civil rights in our nation’s public schools.

Alex Wise: I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Chris Fitzsimon – he is the founder and publisher of the States Newsroom. Chris, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Chris Fitzsimon: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

Alex Wise: I bet a lot of our listeners have read pieces that have gone through the States Newsroom network but haven’t even been aware of it. Maybe explain your organization’s model and why you’ve decided there was a need for what you do.

Chris Fitzsimon: Well I think we are founded on a fairly simple principle and that is that the level of government that is has the most effect on people’s lives and is covered the less if you combine those two things that state government a lot of people always want and I do too I’m very interested in what’s happening in Congress and the White House and the Supreme Court specially recently but for the most part most Americans daily lives are impacted more by what happens in their state than any other a level of government and that has been happening well the people that the number of the of people who cover that has been dramatically shrinking over the last decade as the national media’s undergone its contraction that’s a lot of times the first place people could cut the legacy newspapers cut so we exist to help fill that void and to try to step into capitals where this press corps has shrunk by fifty sixty even eighty percent over the last decade and provide some daily reporting and analysis and enterprise reporting and commentary about what’s happening in state capitals we’ve been around since two thousand seventeen we’ve been an independent national nonprofit since two thousand nineteen we just launched our twenty six outlet in Nebraska in January may eleventh the Alaska beacon will launch and become the the twenty seventh alley we have a Washington bureau we have a national site into another big point I want to make is that a lot of decisions that are made in your state capitol wherever you’re listening to this today are not in a vacuum there similar bills and issues that come up in every state capital across the country so we have a national site news from the states dot com which let you see all of those in one place you can search for voting rights you can search for a climate change and you can see all those stories from capitals around the country you’ll quickly realize that it’s not an accident they’re  taking up the same things often regressive legislation that is a model sent to legislators by various places and we also have a national newsletter to try to sort of synthesized for people so it’s all built around giving people more information to make decisions about their lives at about a place we think has the most impact which is state capitals.

Alex Wise: And does your relationship with these states news rooms, for lack of better term, within the States Newsroom model – does it vary greatly or is it is a relationship similar with all of these organizations have some of the papers already existed and they’ve kind of use you as a distribution outlet, et cetera?

Chris Fitzsimon: The vast majority are all sites that we started. We visited state capitals, got to know people, talked to advocates and media folks and then hired well respected journalist to run them so we have twenty three now of those will soon have twenty four we do have three partner outlets well we call them one of which is NC Policywatch where I used to work one is the Maine Beacon and one is Maryland Matters. They did previously exist and that I think that probably will change some of those might actually come on board a depending on how everything goes in the next couple years but for the vast majority of our outlets are no ones that we started in there they work for us they are supervised by national editors here all their digital support and all that all those things are handled in a central office the Washington bureau work for them as well so it’s all the idea is we try to centralize a lot of the back in things and some of the supervision so that the people in the states can do the journalism and tell their audiences what’s important what the information they need to know and work with communities to find out what they need to know as well.

Alex Wise: So you talk about the journalists in these various states the twenty six twenty seven states that you mentioned you’re not covering Albany Sacramento some of the bigger states in terms of your low hanging fruit, is that fair to say?

Chris Fitzsimon: It is at this point I’m not sure what the future will hold but we do have on I mentioned the news from the state’s site which we run that has all of our content constantly fed has curated stories but we have just signed an agreement with the Texas Tribune for example so there are there are there are content will be there so they’ll be some other states that we don’t run on that particular site but right we don’t we’re not in Sacramento or not in Austin we’re not in Albany at this point.

Alex Wise: And what kind of journalistic standards are you able to apply or do you want to espouse for your network of sites, Chris?

Chris Fitzsimon: Well I think we do the best job we can to cover what’s important and we let we try to let people in the states tell us what that is communities in the states and people that have issues and needs and ideas about their lives on our journalists are very responsive to them we do have a ethic guidelines we do have we we abide by journalism practices that weird phrase I guess these days we don’t cover everything the same we don’t treat every side the same we don’t print things that are patently false or if we do print something that a politician says that is false we point out that it’s false I think we’re trying to do that does as journalism is evolving we’re trying to be part of that evolution and tell people the information they need to know not merely be stenographers but B. analyst as well and try to include as many community voices as we can in that process and we do have commentary which is I guess been described as left of center a leave it to other people to label it but we try to write about state and local issues our editors do when we have a lot of guest commentary from members of the community so a lot of interestingly a lot of legacy papers are shying away now from commentary we think it’s an important part of the journalism landscape.

Alex Wise: I just noticed that the New York Times hired a new editor in chief, Joe Kahn, whose first statement was a little troubling in that it kind of talked about how the Times has an obligation to cover both sides – and that is almost a flashpoint term for a lot of people following the media’s “both sidesisms.” You mentioned how you’re not going to be allowing your network organizations to be publishing things that are patently false but it must be a tricky dance when there is so much misinformation out there what are your thoughts on the Kahn hiring and how does a publisher decide what is weak and what is chaff?

Chris Fitzsimon: Well that’s the that’s the question, I guess. The Kahn hiring, I also maybe took a pause when I read that but we’ll have to see. how that plays out into the news pages of The New York Times. You know the irony, of course, is that The New York Times is assailed all the time for being on one side by the conservatives at the same time with a lot of us are worried that they do cover both sides not as critically as they should the dilemma I think for journalist is it is news when a politician is elected to represent tens of thousands in the state of hundreds of thousands of people in the state says things that are patently false that’s a new story that someone who is representing people saying things that are simply not true but the obligation is to put to point out that it’s not true end to put those things in context if people have information we can’t ignore the fact that we have elected officials who are lying about well the last election the a is the most obvious example so we have to cover that and try to explain it and I think that we’re increasingly as I mentioned in the very first answer the very first question increasingly these this decisions and these huge huge debate for our future are being held in in state capitals and people are still paying enough attention to the people who are making those decisions how they got there who they’re beholden to what their point of views are and the fact that L. a sad number of them are simply not telling the truth about key things that are happening in this country.

(Music break)

Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Chris Fitzsimon. He is the founder and publisher of the States Newsroom. So Chris =, you mentioned how you started the States Newsroom in 2017 and it became a nonprofit two years later. Can you expand on the challenges of being a nonprofit news organization and maybe some of the benefits as well?

Chris Fitzsimon: Yeah well the challenges of course is that we don’t have access to the resources obviously that of a legacy media outlet would have but I think there’s no question that nonprofits and philanthropy and that’s going to play a significant role in journalism going forward one of the things that is of a four is freeing for a lot of our journalists and editors is that we don’t judge the success of a story by the number of clicks we want people to read the stories we don’t do stories simply to get readers we monitor audience and we want it but if there’s a really important story we do it and if a lot of people don’t read it we feel like we have to figure out other ways to get it in front of people and promoted and share it and try to create a buzz around it because we think it’s important so I think the advantages were not beholden to turning a profit at the end of the day in the biggest advantage I think by far is that we make our coverage in our content freed up everyone we have a a republishing tool that’s very easy that we developed our digital team developed in an average month will probably have four to five thousand stories reprinted across the country inst but in small papers that have no way to afford coverage they can afford it says you did press they can’t send someone to the capital certainly reporter so small town in Iowa now I we think of that are you that paper as an example has day coverage for the first time in ten years probably because they carry our coverage about what.

Chris Fitzsimon: Happening and avoid it interestingly the morning register also runs our stories because they have been their work forces been slash so much that they can’t cover the news either so we’re just trying to fill that void as best we can but I think the biggest advantage of a nonprofit is when we not only are allowed we allow people to to publish we have an obligation to allow people I think because we’re a public good now as a nonprofit we try to serve the community that way.

Alex Wise: Maybe you can recap because I’m not really as familiar as I imagine you are, of some of the efforts on the for-profit news side of things over the last couple decades to take advantage of a fragmented industry that’s kind of been kind of regrouping as the age of the internet and consumers expect to read everything for free that new reality I’m thinking of like I know Sheldon Adelson’s group has bought up a lot of small papers how have those efforts not only work from a business standpoint but affected journalism on a state level in general.

Chris Fitzsimon: Yeah well in general they’re still there are waves of layoffs still happening in the journalism industry in the legacy media outlets their waves of layoffs and there are takeover bids and there are legacy newspapers wonderful newspapers wonderful histories or storied histories I should say who have been who are now owned by a hedge fund whose goal is to maximize profit is to shrink the work force is to reduce the the number of people who actually do the journalism and sort of benefit as much as I can off the brand and then you know move in another direction so it’s very alarming and we have five lots of friends that still at legacy newspapers and it is a it’s a constant struggle in battle for them to do their jobs I still encourage people to support to subscribe to those papers to do the best they can do to support them but it is very difficult for a lot of journalists around the country and you know we have people who within states that were not in who will write us and say or are you coming to our state because we don’t have enough people covering it we want to work at a place that that we can feel good about and secure in so you know I always tell people I don’t know what the future of journalism is we might all be receiving news in our head you know did you know chip in our forehead in twenty years but I know that as we get to that place we can’t wait for the perfect model and and philanthropy and public support of nonprofit journalism has to play him and will continue to play a key role I think in trying to keep democracy alive which used to we used to take for granted I’m not so sure we can’t anymore.

Alex Wise: And are all of your publications digital only are there some in print?

Chris Fitzsimon: There are digital they are digital only though I’m not sure what the future will hold there but they are at this point all digital.

Alex Wise: And maybe you can kind of give us a glimpse into what your head count is and your budget and your funding plans and maybe if you’re allowed to kind of give us a an idea of where the bulk of your funding comes from, Chris.

Chris Fitzsimon: Yeah well we which one we are trying to decide what we should do about talking about our funding we looked at that there’s a a group called Chalkbeat which is the national education organization and some people like them some people don’t think they have really good reporters there in the state so we sort of establish their model and everybody that’s given us five hundred dollars or more is listed on our website so their big donors small donors everybody in between so we get foundation support we get tons of we get a lot of readers support in and what we try to do is go to a state with us with enough to pay for a small staff and then in almost every state we’ve received enough support to increase our reach with additional staff people or additional freelancers every state that we start as an editor and three reporters so we have four for to full time journalist which doesn’t sound like much but in some states that makes us one of the larger folks at the state capitol and all those the the light unlike a lot of nonprofits and again I applaud of work with we work across the country with a lot of folks in partnerships but those journalists don’t have to do much except report and edit and write and speak and get to know people and get to know the community because we have a you know we do a lot – almost all their support is done by folks either here in North Carolina or in Washington so that the model really is we want the people in the states to do the journalism.

Alex Wise: So do you have a big enough footprint to be able to set up a side environmental reporting as a subset in and climate change as a main focus money kind of give us an idea of where you’re hoping to to delve into the green side of journalism.

Chris Fitzsimon: Yes thank you for the question we certainly cover the environment in every state because climate change and environmental issues are so important to our future but also the quality of life that we have now we have one of the best environment reporters in the country and and North Carolina Policywatch you I think is one virtually every war you can win, we have dedicated environment reporters in several states we have won in Virginia that’s funded by the Oak Hill Foundation in Virginia we have other contributors in various states we would love to expand and have full time climate or environmental reporters and all of our outlets and some were able to and some were not so that is definitely something we would love to do in the future and a lot of people a lot of people to give us money and we have you know tens if not hundreds of thousands of individuals to give us money mention climate and the environment often so we’re constantly trying to figure out how we’re gonna expand that we’re working on I think you’ll see more regional projects from our states that that have things in common whether it’s in the south west or the northeast we’ve been working with we may have a environmental project with some non profits in Louisiana so we’re constantly trying to do what we can zip to make people give people the information they need.

Alex Wise: And how do people know that they’re on a States Newsroom site and maybe give them some calls to action when they come across your content and they’re impressed enough to want to become regular readers.

Chris Fitzsimon: Yeah well there every news first of all every outlet if you go to the New Hampshire bulletin if you just click about the need if you want to find out if you think that’s a good website you go to the New Hampshire bolt and it’ll tell you that your honor that New Hampshire both as part of the States Newsroom room network every outlet has its own daily newsletter that’s delivered in the morning as does new from the states are national site of the you can sign up for the newsletters are all free every newsletter also has a place and every website has a place where you can donate even if it’s you know ten dollars or a hundred dollars or whatever you’re able to give that would be great we do count on reader support for expanding our coverage and making sure we continue to cover the things that that people need to know in each state capital and across the country.

Alex Wise: The organization is the States Newsroom. He’s the publisher and founder, Chris fitzsimon. Chris, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Chris Fitzsimon: Thanks for having me.

(music break)

Alex Wise (AW) I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Liz King. Liz is the Senior Director of the education equity program at the Leadership Conference on civil and human rights. Liz, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Liz King (LK)  Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate the opportunity to engage.

Alex Wise (AW) So you want to double the budget for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. What does that mean logistically what is like the current budget? And what would doubling it mean, not only in terms of dollar number, but in terms of just looking at all the complexities of that are occurring right now in Congress with reconciliation, etc. from a political standpoint?

LK  Sure. So thinking about both the technical aspect of federal funding and then going to the political implications. Last year, the Office for Civil Rights received $131 million. President Biden has requested that that be increased to $144 million, which is important. You know, we appreciate that President Biden has recognized that additional funding for civil rights enforcement is an important part of any agenda that describes itself as supporting racial equity or LGBTQ equity or gender justice. We are asking for $260 million for the Office for Civil Rights, given the context of the COVID-19 public health crisis and its serious detrimental effects on educational equity, given the divorce agenda of discrimination and exclusion we’ve seen for the last four years, and given frankly, the significant challenges too many students were facing, even before the Trump inauguration to accessing an equal educational opportunity. We think that now is the time in the context of a long overdue racial reckoning in the context of a very clear demands from students and their families that we attend to the ways in which they experienced discrimination and marginalization. Now is the time to robustly invest in the critical functions of the Office for Civil Rights in the everyday experience of students and the way in which every student deserves an opportunity to submit a complaint of discrimination when they experienced discrimination in their school and have the Office for Civil Rights ready to respond to provide them support in the context of that complaint, to intervene when there is discrimination and most importantly, the Office for Civil Rights needs the resources to prevent discrimination in the first place to provide technical assistance to schools, school districts, to educators who reach out and ask for advice and guidance about how to provide an education free from discrimination. We need data we need the civil rights data collection, and the data it provides about every public school in the United States, and the educational opportunity being provided to those students. So these critical functions of the Office for Civil Rights play an incredibly important role in educational opportunity for students, which we know is determinative of the future of our country. And now is the time to meaningfully invest and ensure the Office for Civil Rights has the resources that it needs.

AW  Liz, maybe you can put into context, what it means for children of color to be put out of school, in the kind of rates that we’ve seen across the country and how that ends up feeding. Other concerns all through society, namely the school-to-prison pipeline.

LK  In this country, we have a deeply discriminatory system of school discipline that is resulting in the exclusion and criminalization of black children, Native American children, other children of color, children with disabilities, and in many instances, most especially children of color with disabilities. LGBTQ students are finding themselves disproportionately excluded from school as a result of discipline policies and practices. Thankfully, the Office for Civil Rights in the Obama administration finally took meaningful action to make plain and clear that racial discrimination in the context of school discipline was unlawful under our civil rights laws. But we know this is not just an esoteric concept around compliance with a law or data collection. We know this has our real effect in the everyday experience of children, we have all been reminded in the COVID-19 crisis, what the real consequences are when a child misses a day of school or more, we see children being pushed out of school on the basis of school discipline for days and weeks and months at a time, we cannot afford for children to lose even a single hour of instruction, let alone the implications of a racially disproportionate and an unjust ablest system of school discipline. Educators want and deserve support to provide an education free from discrimination and that includes in the context of school discipline. Thankfully, there has been amazing leadership by youth in this country to demand that their schools become safe, welcoming and inclusive places for them to learn, grow and thrive. We have seen in the past the Office for Civil Rights show leadership and demonstrate its responsibility to ensure that our laws are being followed and that children have access to an education free from discrimination. When a child is suspended out of school, it can have significant consequences from them, it for them, it can have academic consequences when they lose instruction, there can be risks to their safety and well being if there is not a safe place for them to be when they’re not in school. And we know definitively from repeated research, what common sense would tell us, which is that suspending or expelling a child puts them on a very dangerous trajectory to a very difficult life circumstance, we have a responsibility to ensure that all schools are safe, welcoming and inclusive for all children. The Office for Civil Rights has a specific responsibility in that, as does every child and parent an educator in this country. We need to make sure the Office for Civil Rights has the resources it needs. So that every child can attend school free from discrimination, including in the context of school discipline.

AW  She’s the Senior Director of the education equity program at the Leadership Conference on civil and human rights. Liz King, Liz, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

LK  Thank you so much for having me.

Narrator  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Fog Swamp, Stephen Stills, and T-Bone Walker. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week. As we continue making connections for Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.

Leave a Reply